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GETTING SALTY

Shannon McNeil loves the South Street Diner and Southie, but maybe not Shawn Mendes

‘He was really nice, but I had no idea who he was.’

South Street Diner's Shannon McNeil grew up in Southie and has no plans to leave.Handout

Shannon McNeil, 52, is a familiar face in the early mornings and sometimes late at night at the South Street Diner. The diner celebrates Anti-Valentine’s Week through Feb 21, serving themed dishes and cocktails (stupid cupid sangria, and anti-love potion Prosecco). But this Southie native, ice cream aficionado, and grandmother is all love: for her neighborhood, her customers, and the diner’s chicken quesadillas.

What brought you into the food business?

Years ago, probably 25 years ago, I was just looking for a part-time job. I started working at the Bickford’s on Soldiers Field Road, near Allston-Brighton. That’s where I started, and then, maybe eight or nine years ago, I was looking for another part-time job. I started at South Street Diner as a takeout person on the weekends, on the overnights. I’d never experienced a place with such high volume.

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Why food and not a different part-time job?

Because I like the people. I like the camaraderie of all that. It’s almost like once you do it, you don’t want to stop, even if you don’t need to do it. You just meet so many different people. It’s almost like we’re longstanding hairdressers. You know how, when you get your hair done, you know everything about your hairdresser, and she knows everything about you? That’s how it is. I have customers who come back once a year on their anniversary. We have the same people working at South Station for years. We have the same construction guys. They know my name. I know their name. I’ve never met their kids or their family, but I know everything about them.

Tell me a little bit about growing up. Are you from this area?

I grew up in South Boston. I had three older brothers, two younger sisters. It was a regular Irish family. All my family grew up in South Boston on my mom’s side. I had probably like 40, 50 cousins; you know what I mean? My mother was the only girl. She had all brothers. So we were really close. My grandmother lived here.

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What was it like back in the day? How has South Boston changed over the years?

I knew everybody. South Boston seems so big, but it’s very small, the family aspect of it. We were outside in the summers, all the kids and the parents, and everyone was inside for dinner. You had to be inside for dinner. My mom never worked until we all went to school. It was just a different era. I was born in ‘71, so late ‘70s, early ‘80s And it was fun. We didn’t lock our doors. You didn’t lock your cars. It was just so different.

Back then, I could walk into my neighbor’s house. We grew up with respect. I could never walk up to your mom and say, ‘Hi, Kara!’ I’d get slapped upside the head. It would have to be, ‘Hi Mrs. So-and-So.’ If somebody was coming in with bags, you had to stop playing and grab the bags and bring them in. It was just a different world. These kids will never know anything about it.

Were there restaurants that you grew up going to that are no longer here that you really miss? Or anywhere you still love?

Well, when I was younger with my grandmother, I always went to — we have this place in South Boston, called Broadway. They had Woolworth’s, and back then they had the counter, right? It was in the back, and you could get a grilled cheese. And there was Flanagan’s on Broadway. None of that stuff is there. All the little department stores closed. They’re all gone. We used to have a movie theater up there that’s gone. It’s all condos.

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I would go up Broadway with my grandmother. We would go to Woolworth’s and then would walk to Flanagan’s, and she’d do her food shopping. She didn’t drive, so then we’d take a taxi home to her house every weekend. It was the best. I’d get my grilled cheese and she’d get something. Nowadays, people don’t do that.

People line up outside the South Street Diner on Feb. 8, 2020. Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

What’s it like at South Street Diner?

It’s fun. I work some overnights into the morning, so that’s completely different than what I’m used to working. I usually work 6 a.m. until 3 p.m.

If [owner Sol Sidell] is doing something or if he and his wife are away, it’s completely different. The crowd’s different. It’s a lot busier on the overnights. I mean, some people wait 20, 30 minutes to get in. There’s literally 30 or 40 people waiting outside, and it doesn’t matter if it’s snowing, if it’s raining, if it’s freezing. They just wait. We have a good system. Everything runs pretty smoothly.

What’s the daytime versus the nighttime vibe?

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Daytime is very calm, mellow. People come in for breakfast, especially the workers and stuff, or even people coming in from South Station or the airport. They usually just eat and then they’ll go.

But at nighttime, they want to hang around. They listen to the music, they play music. They’re dancing and singing in the booths and on the stools, and it’s fun. It’s a fun place. It’s a good vibe. And at night, too, it’s the same thing. You have people who are working, coming from the bars or the clubs or people who work overnight or guys who work across the street. You get the same people. People say they went on their first date here.

We had people a few months ago who took their wedding pictures outside because they met here. And then I have somebody who’s coming next week. He took his soon-to-be wife here for their first date, and he’s going to come back with his wedding party. They’re going to get married, and they’re going to come back with 15 people because they’re having a small thing now and a party afterward. That’s how South Street made him feel. I think that’s special for them and for South Street.

Late at night, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen? Do you have any characters?

I mean, it’s such different types of people. We get a lot of famous people — football players, basketball players, the music industry. It’s so busy. Sometimes, I don’t even realize it until they tell me after. And then you can get just the average person coming in after a night at the club. They’re hungry. They want a burger. They love our burgers, our chicken fingers, all the comfort food.

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What’s the secret of being a good diner waitress?

The secret? Well, in a formal setting, it’s a different atmosphere. If you’re in a formal place, no one’s going to come in and be like, “Hi, Shannon, how are you?” They’re not going to do that. Most people don’t continuously visit a place like that, but at the diner, people are coming in all the time. They’ll come in when they know that you’re working. They’ll come in to tell you something that’s going on in their life or to ask you if everything’s going good in your life. I don’t know; it’s just more family.

To me, it feels like you meet people and over the years you get to know them, and it’s a good feeling when you’re working and someone comes in. They’re like, “What’s your section? I want to sit with you. How’s things going? How’s your husband? How’s the grandkids?” They ask me stuff because we talk all the time.

Who’s your most memorable customer? Doesn’t have to be anybody famous.

I would probably say that young singer Shawn Mendes. I didn’t know who he was. I’m an old lady.

Shawn Mendes.Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for David Yurman

I don’t really know who he is either, so don’t worry.

OK, thank you. He came in, and I’m waiting on him, and there’s this heavy-set guy sitting at the bar, not sitting with him. And he asked me, “Can you not play any of his music?” And I’m like, “Whose music?” We have iTunes things on the wall, and so people can type in a name and then play a song. I had no idea who he was, and I was like, “Oh! I’m sorry, I have no idea.”

So I snuck a picture, and then I’m Googling. I’m like, “Who is this?” My granddaughter was like, “Nana, oh my God, he’s so famous.” And I’m like, “Yeah, not to Nana. I don’t know him. I’m too old.” He was really nice, but I had no idea who he was.

I think the most memorable people for me are the people who come back every year on their anniversary. I’ve met people and we get to talking, and I know all their family and vice versa.

What’s special about Boston? Growing up here, you probably have a unique perspective.

It’s like you can go anywhere. You know what I mean? I can walk up to Broadway to a restaurant. The bus outside my front will take me right into Downtown Crossing. Everything is right here.

And for me, it’s like South Boston, we call it Southie, is home. This is where I grew up. I have the best memories with my parents, who are now deceased. Two of my siblings, who are now deceased. This is where I met my husband. This is where my children were born. People are always like, “Are you ever going to leave?” And I’m like, “No. Unless they throw me out, I’m not leaving.”

I just love this city. I’m definitely a city girl. ... If I want to walk to Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, I can. Everything’s right here. And for me, it’s just special. I wouldn’t leave. This is my home.

Where do you hang out when you’re not working? Do you have any favorite restaurants?

I work so much. Sometimes I work split shifts or overnight. I come home. We have dinner. Sometimes, we might go out to grab an ice cream or something once in a while. We like Chinese food. I’ll go to Cathay Pacific, Gennaro’s, stuff like that. We’re older. If you asked me 20 years ago, I could probably tell you tons of places. I spend a lot of time with my grandsons on the weekends, so we get ice cream.

Where do you go for ice cream?

I don’t get out of the car because my husband spoils me. Oh, J.P. Licks. And then sometimes we drive to Quincy. Frozen Freddies or something. I love ice cream.

You’re a true New Englander. What’s your favorite flavor?

Vanilla.

Classic. What’s your favorite food at South Street?

Chicken fingers. The chicken quesadilla. We have really good burgers though, too. I don’t know. It would have to be probably burgers, chicken fingers, chicken quesadillas, banana bread.

If you had to describe your customers in a sentence, what would you say?

They’re kind; they’re loyal; and they’re just overall really, really great people.

Last but not least: What’s your guilty pleasure snack?

Oh, ice cream. I’m not a chocolate person. It’s the ice cream. It really is ice cream.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her @kcbaskin.